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Do the Right Thing

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The amoral market can do some pretty immoral things.

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I received a flood of letters last week -- many of them negative -- about a piece I wrote suggesting that the financial industry needs to be regulated. One man who disagreed with my opinions told me:

"The system is failing because it was designed for people who govern themselves to do right. America and its 'free-market' system will continue to crumble as the American people continue to crumble, morally."

This reader's statements had a common-sense appeal. I clicked "reply" and told him I agreed with him. But when I re-read his message, I was less sure.

I decided to examine his assertions. First: Is the "free-market" system crumbling?

The "free market" is often presented as a variation on Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest. Bigger animals devour smaller ones; when a big animal grows old and feeble, we should therefore let it die a natural death, so that other animals can feed on it, and the ecosystem can evolve.

In the last few months, we've had a parade of sick, lumbering elephants -- Fannie Mae (FNM), Freddie Mac (FRE), AIG (AIG), Citigroup (C), General Motors (GM), Ford (F), etc. -- begging for the government's mercy. To the astonishment of a great many, Congress, with barely a whimper of protest, hooked these diseased giants up to a life-support system. They are now stumbling around, Band-Aids slapped over their mortal wounds.

So yes, that part is true: The free-market system (as we know it) is crumbling.

What about the assertion that it's crumbling because the American people are crumbling morally? Before we can examine the linkage, it's worth asking: "Are the American people crumbling morally?"

It certainly feels that way. We're constantly bombarded with intimate details of the most sordid crimes imaginable. The mainstream media has abandoned any attempt at perspective or decorum. In fact, there's little difference in tone or content between CNN (TWX), and The National Enquirer.

If you doubt that, I invite you to take the following quiz: Which of these headlines originated on CNN News?

1. "Testosterone Patch May Kick-Start Sex Drive In Women"

2. "Nine Headless Bodies Found in Mexico"

3. "Top Mug Shots of 2008"

4. "Gallery of the Famous and Foreclosed"

5. "Woman 'Pregnant' With Monkey"

If you guessed all of them - you're correct.

Another factor that makes America feel more decadent is the ability of ordinary people to broadcast their opinions anonymously online. Countless studies have shown that people behave better when their personal reputations are at stake. Thus the general tone of most message boards is toxic. Mild disagreements quickly devolve into physical threats. Reading these posts, you'd think America was a nation of violent, racist, sexist bigots.
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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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